How to Get New Parents to Come Back After Leave

It's a fact of the modern workplace that employees will go out on parental leave. It's also a fact that there will always be a concern about whether or not they will come back. The question is...are companies doing enough to make sure they're retaining employees after leave?

At a lot of companies, the answer may be no. On some level, it might be absence of policy. Those who haven't thought through the basics are at a disadvantage. It's not surprising that a New York Times story about why women are leaving jobs cited specifically the absence of programs such as child care as a major deterrent.

But sometimes it's not absence of policy as much as pathway. How easy is it to come back? The benefits might be there. But if the company hasn't thought through how to guide people toward using them, even the best benefits can fall flat.

Why Companies Lose Parents After Leave

And there are real risks. Lean In author Cheryl Sandberg wrote that when it comes to balancing working and parenting, 43% of women saw opting out as a better option than continuing to work, and have chosen to do so...at least temporarily. The study cited in the Times article said 61% of women who chose to opt out did so specifically because of family responsibilities.

That's potentially costly when you consider the numbers. Of the 34-million families with young children in this country, 90% have at least one parent in the workforce. That's 30- to 60-million employees at stake. Just as important, the number of new mothers and fathers over age 30 is on the rise, says the CDC. That puts new moms in the important, mid-career category that can be costly (in knowledge and replacement) for employers to lose.

"Ensuring that we have the right leaders for the organizations of tomorrow is not just about finding new talent," wrote Bright Horizons Director of Leadership and Professional Development Elisa Vincent not long ago. "It also fixes the leaks in talent pipelines. Loss of talent - particularly female talent - can be a huge leak."

Unquestionably, plugging that leak starts with benefits that help parents come back after leave. But just as important is a map - a well-worn trail showing how it's done. So what exactly can you do to avoid that leak?

Proactively Reach Out

Communicating with employees during the expectant- and new-parent phases reminds people they're still a valued part of the work community. It also says that you're eager to have them back. Such communications should be built into your leave procedures. A new program we've just introduced for clients touches base with employees at several intervals from pregnancy to first year, and provides special websites just for parents in those stages

Offer Something Just for the First Year

Smart companies worried about retaining employees after leave are thinking about what they can give people to help them get through the transition. At Accenture, for example, new parents in the primary caregiver role have the option of limiting business travel during their baby's first year. At Bright Horizons, our new program gives new parents extra days of back-up care that can be used for, among other things, the chance to experience a child care center before returning to work.

Provide a Map Not a Treasure Hunt

Put everything employees need for a new baby - child care, back-up care, discounts, how to update insurance, everything you offer - in one easy-to-find place. Be clear about subsidies, reservations, rules, and registrations. As Accenture's Julie Wilkes told our webinar attendees last year, "If your employees have to search multiple places before they can locate something, that's a miss."

Have a Point of Contact

Employees with questions shouldn't have to play phone tag to find the right person to ask. A specialist - someone who can give definitive answers - ensures people know where to go when they need human advice.

Help Them See Their Post-Baby Career

When it comes to returning to work, the baby elephant in the room is the parent's career. And people who feel confident about their return prospects are most likely to want to return. Elisa suggests talking to employees individually about goals and offering opportunities to learn, develop, and network. "To effectively create a system for people to take leave," she wrote, "we need to focus not just on how to help them prepare to leave, but also on how to effectively re-engage them when they get back."

Retaining Employees After Leave Helps Recruitment, Too

Showing people the path back has benefits beyond the current workforce. The successful transition of today's employees from people without children to working parents becomes the advertisement to tomorrow's prospects. That's important because Millennials are planners - employees in a study told us they're choosing companies with family-friendly supports even if they don't have children right now.

So showing the way makes your hiring brand the one that says, "We support successful careers for working parents."

And that ensures not only that you're retaining employees after leave - but that they want to come work for you in the first place. [divider]

Return to Work Strategies: Beyond Parental Leave Live Webinar November 16th

Join us to learn what an effective return to work program includes & why it's more important than ever. Register now

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.